Following word last spring about potential mold and air quality issues, not to mention subsequent news about threats to the institution's accreditation, Wakefield's citizenry can finally feel a little hopeful about the future of its high school.
Just before the start of 2020, word quickly spread around the suburban community that the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) had accepted the community's latest request to consider contributing funds for substantial renovations or a complete rebuild of Wakefield Memorial High School off of Farm Street.
For at least five consecutive years, Wakefield's leaders, well-aware of serious academic and building system deficiencies within the educational complex, had pleaded with the state agency for help. To build their case, the community had even commissioned its own assessment study to detail the scope of the infrastructure woes.
According to that 2016 analysis by architectural firm Dore & Whittier, the issues were so widespread, it would cost at least $74 million to address them through a renovation initiative, while a complete rebuild of the facility will easily surpass $100 million.
Last December, the MSBA, after reviewing the town's latest 41-page summary of the high school's deteriorating conditions, finally agreed to conduct a more thorough exploration. At stake is millions of dollars in potential reimbursement funding from the MSBA, which has since 2004 forked out more than $14.1 billion in funding to cities and towns across the state for school-related construction projects.
Most recently, the MSBA partnered with Wakefield in 2012 and footed roughly 54 percent of the $74 million bill associated with constructing the new Galvin Middle School.
Though the town's recent invitation into the MSBA's 270-day invitation period doesn't guarantee any money for a high school fix, local officials were quick to celebrate the milestone. In total, Wakefield beat out 97 other school districts that had sent applications — known as Statements of Interest or SOIs — looking to partner with the state agency.
"Great news!" School Superintendent Douglas Lyons and Town Administrator Stephen Maio wrote to local citizens after the MSBA announcement. The MSBA Board voted unanimously today to invite Wakefield into the 2019-2020 eligibility period, which allows Wakefield to begin collaborating with the MSBA to renovate or rebuild [our high school]."
Serious state of disrepair
In the coming months, Wakefield’s leaders will be asked to meet with MSBA officials to discuss the next steps in the process. Normally, the second phase involves the formation of a building committee and the hiring of a project manager and architect to oversee a joint feasibility study that examines options for addressing educational facility deficiencies and ways to fix those issues.
Dating back to 1960, Wakefield Memorial High School was originally constructed as a jusior high facility, before it was converted through a 1972 expansion project that included the addition of a new classroom wing, a two-story library, and separate theatre and field house.
Situated close to the Woodville Elementary School and the Northeast Metro Tech Vocational High School, the town high school sits on 10.8 acres of land. Nearby are at least two other municipal properties, including Walsh Field off Hemlock Road, which altogether comprise some 40.8-acres of land.
According to Wakefield's most recent 41-page SOI, which argues the community qualifies for MSBA funding under five separate criteria, the current high school off Farm Street is already prone to overcrowding, lacks sufficient electrical-system capabilities to incorporate new-age technology into classrooms, and is woefully in need of specialized spaces for modern-day science labs and art and music electives.
Town leaders point out that average class sizes in the buildings originally constructed to house 20 pupils, have recently jumped to 26 students. In fact, overcrowding and improper instruction spaces have become such a concern, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges last fall placed Wakefield High School's accreditation status on probation.
"Fitting classes of 26 high school students into spaces that are just 650 square feet poses many instructional and classroom management challenges. In particular, it makes small group work and flexible grouping nearly impossible. Many classrooms have little to no storage," noted local officials in their 2019 SOI to the MSBA.
"Many of the science labs are too small, and do not provide adequate ventilation to accommodate labs, as well as, the interactive learning opportunities so vital to science and technology instruction. It also makes for dangerous conditions when handling chemicals in tight spaces," the SOI furthered.
Town officials in recent years have also listed a litany of infrastructure issues with the educational facility, including: Insufficient thermal insulation, antiquated electrical and plumbing systems, rusting stairwells and cracking concrete masonry, and increasing indications that large sections of the roof are failing.
Last May the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) also highlighted elevated carbon monoxide readings that exceeded state guidelines, as well as health concerns associated with "microbial colonization" and mold growth from moisture that was collecting behind walls and penetrating through ceiling tiles.
"Carbon dioxide levels were above the MDPH guideline of 800 parts per million (ppm) in
approximately half of all rooms tested, indicating inadequate air exchange in those areas," noted the DPH inspection team in a 36-page summary of its findings.
"Water-damaged ceiling tiles were observed in many areas…which indicate leaks from the building envelope or plumbing system. A few of the stains were dark which may indicate microbial colonization," the state officials further noted. "Active leaks are reported in some classrooms and hallways during heavy rain."
Back in 2016, town citizens agreed to commission a study looking at five potential options for correcting the issues with the high school.
Though the MSBA is unlikely to adopt those findings — the agency requires the completion of another feasibility study under its own diagnostic criteria — the Dore and Whittier report projects the cost of a high school renovation at $73 million.
The architectural firm, which also studied three options that involved building an entirely new school, estimated a total replacement at between $122 and $126.4 million. Under two of those scenarios, a new high school would be constructed at Walsh Field by the current baseball diamond, which would allow for students to remain in the existing building during construction.
According to the MSBA, if it ultimately agreed to contribute state funding for a high school renovation or rebuilding project, the state agency could be expected to cover about 48 percent of authorized construction costs.